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It’s usually a good bet to mistrust neologisms in the world of food, and so far I’ve felt I could live without “narrative” – the cheffy jargon for the way the progress of the meal is constructed and how the courses interact. I never felt the need to talk about narrative in my dinner until I finally got to The Clove Club.
Isaac McHale has long been identified as one of London’s most promising young chefs. His rise has been unconventional, through a mixture of events, pop-ups, residencies and collaborations, but his skills are obvious. At his new professional home, The Clove Club, he is once again teamed with Daniel Willis and Johnny Smith, his partners at the successful Ten Bells project, cooking above a pub.
The room, inside the tarted-up Shoreditch Town Hall, is high-ceilinged and plainly decorated, with a crowd that tends toward the hipster. There is no choice of menu, though the very charming floor staff make repeated inquires about preferences and allergies.
The three starters billed on the menu arrived at once. Mantua melon wrapped in pancetta with Sichuan pepper suffered a little from a watery fruit but the smoked wild salmon, served on a delicate rye cracker, more than compensated. Nothing could compete, though, with the buttermilk-fried chicken with pine salt. It was the high point of the meal, even when served in a nest of fresh pine needles that bordered on the daft. These, the chef explained with a straight face, used to be locally foraged by a sous-chef somewhere on the Mile End Road until he started “getting funny looks”. They are now collected from the obviously far more cosmopolitan Bethnal Green, where a young man in whites can nick bits of tree with impunity. Pine can be a naff flavouring but here, mixed with salt, it adds just a topnote of menthol that levitates each shatteringly crisp nugget. Give me a bucket of those and I could die a happy man.
McHale has embraced charcuterie with enthusiasm, so an unscripted course of home-cured salumi – coppa, red wine and fennel salami – was a terrific bonus. There followed an unannounced sunflower seed and kohlrabi roll, and pigeon sausage enlivened with Ten Bells ketchup – a home-brewed hot sauce.
By the time the char came, with green tomatoes and a strip of its skin deep-fried, we’d stopped even trying to refer to the menu. It was a thoughtful combination – though the fish was not firm in texture and the tomatoes lacked punch – but it mainly felt like it had become detached from its unit and lost behind enemy lines.
Then the mains began to flow. Going into the second act, as a screenwriter would have it, we were back on the arc. Broad beans, marjoram, lardo mint and iced goat’s milk were clean and fragrant, while the Scottish blood pudding was served with a just suboptimal slice of peach and a treatment of fine beans that looked like jade beads and sang from the plate of their freshness.
Slow-roast Lincolnshire chicken, peas, girolles and garlic scape caused my date to murmur, “Well, they certainly know what to do with a chicken” – an observation which didn’t quite cover an unheralded kara-age skewer “from the kitchen” impaling the poor beast’s oysters, heart and testicle: rich, oleaginous and possibly addictive.
We came away from The Clove Club delighted but confused. The only technical failings were those attendant on the simplicity of delivery. If you’re going to feature peach as a foil for black pudding, you are a hostage to obtaining superlative peaches. And when chefs and waiters bear a series of courses to your table which might be amuses, palate cleansers, intercourses, starters, mains or tapas, there is no obvious rhythm to the meal.
Still, the talent on show here boils over – a constant stream of eclectic brilliance. It’s hard to believe the quantity of great stuff you get for £47 per head. The Clove Club, I believe, will be an important institution but, though I’d still balk at using the word “narrative” about dinner, it’s the only way to describe what’s ever so slightly awry. The elements, in the form of stunning food, are all there: it’s the coherent script of a phenomenal meal that still needs writing.
The Clove Club
Shoreditch Town Hall, 380 Old Street, London EC1V 9LT; 020 7729 6496; http://thecloveclub.com